Song of Praise : The Society of Singers Honors Tony Martin With Its Ella Award
“I know you heard it before, but it works,” Dinah Shore said in response to the laughter that greeted her telling of an old joke.
It was that sort of an evening: The old jokes still seemed funny, the old melodies still sounded romantic and everyone was happy to admit just how long they’d all known each other.
Shore was emcee Friday night as the Society of Singers honored Tony Martin with its third “Ella Lifetime Achievement Award.”
The society, established to provide relief to professional singers in need, awarded previous Ellas to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
The ballroom at the Beverly Hilton was crammed with a bevy of grand old troupers, the men in tuxedos, the women aglitter with sequins, as Martin’s peers from his more than 50-year career in radio, movies, television and the record business gathered to sing his praises.
The evening also saw Maria Cole acknowledge the society’s establishment of a scholarship under the auspices of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts in the name of her late husband, Nat King Cole.
“We go back to 1944 to Seymour Johnson Field in North Carolina,” Henry Mancini admitted as he joked with Martin about their low military ranking then. “I think we were both nothing.”
Ginny Mancini, founder and president of the Society of Singers, couldn’t claim such a long acquaintance as her husband, but during the evening’s entertainment program, she did introduce a clip from a 1955 television show in which she could be glimpsed as a background extra behind Martin’s shoulder.
Debbie Reynolds, Virginia O’Brien, Esther Williams, Kathryn Grayson, Mel Torme and Joe Williams were among those picking up the microphone to voice praise for Martin, as were comics Jack Carter, Norm Crosby and Rodney Dangerfield.
Among those in the audience were Gloria and Jimmy Stewart, Edie and Lew Wasserman, George Stevens Jr., Ross Hunter and Nancy Sinatra Jr. and Sr.
Alan King, who was earning some plaudits of his own from those who had seen his pugnacious performance in the movie “Night and the City,” told the crowd, “I’m going to make you cry before this is all over,” recalling his early years “opening for Tony.”
King found himself with tears in his eyes at evening’s end.
“It does bring a tear to your eye. You never know when any of us are going to kick the bucket, so occasions like this are to be treasured like pearls,” said the ever ebullient Ann Miller, in a figure-hugging column of gold sequins.
She was rivaled in the still-in-great-shape stakes only by Martin’s wife of 45 years, Cyd Charisse, who danced to pay tribute to her husband.
“If you hang in long enough, this can happen to anyone,” Martin had said lightheartedly at the start of the evening, but by the end, he was clearly deeply moved as he stepped up to receive the Tiffany-designed crystal pyramid award from a frail Ella Fitzgerald and then began to sing “This Is All I Ask,” which contains the words, “I will stay younger than spring. . . .”